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‘The Day After Tomorrow’ - fact or fiction?


The Day After Tomorrow - the latest Hollywood blockbuster movie released yesterday - depicts an extreme rapid climate change event following the sudden shutdown of the North Atlantic overturning circulation due to global warming. The film by Roland Emmerich, maker of ‘Independence Day’, is a dramatic portrayal of possible consequences of climate change.

Could this really happen?

The UK is taking the lead in rapid climate change research to try to answer that question. A £20 million Rapid Climate Change programme (known as RAPID for short) is being funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Working with partners in the UK and abroad, the aim of RAPID is to determine the probability of rapid climate change and its likely impact.

Says Dr Meric Srokosz, Science Coordinator for RAPID, “While the film is a classic disaster movie featuring hugely exaggerated events - for example, total shutdown of the ocean circulation takes place over a few days rather than the decade that seem scientifically feasible - it does present some genuine scientific information about ocean circulation, ice core sampling and past climate shifts. We know from studying Greenland ice cores and North Atlantic marine sediment records, that extremely abrupt climate changes have occurred repeatedly in the past.”

The film has been broadly welcomed by scientists as a way to raise awareness about the importance of climate change issues.

For the first time, a monitoring system is being set up to monitor changes in the North Atlantic overturning circulation (which brings heat north in the Atlantic and gives the UK and NW Europe its temperate climate). The UK research vessel RRS Discovery has recently deployed an array of moorings across the North Atlantic Ocean. These will give a continuous record of circulation fluctuations in the ocean over the next few years.

Dr Srokosz says, “There are serious scientific concerns that greenhouse warming might cause a slowdown of the North Atlantic circulation, further perturbing the climate system. Present understanding would suggest that rapid climate change in the near future is very unlikely, but should it happen its impact on Western European economy and society would be serious. We need to improve our knowledge of the climate system and of the processes involved and that is exactly what the RAPID programme aims to do.”

Marion O’Sullivan | NERC
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